CSU joins $9 million Sage project, a continent-wide network of smart sensors

farm field

A multi-institutional team that includes Colorado State University is launching an ambitious plan for building a continent-wide network of smart sensors for environmental monitoring. The goal: giving scientists sensitive new tools for understanding how the planet is changing, whether it’s by high-resolution cameras or by air quality and weather sensors.

The project, called Sage, is supported by $9 million from the National Science Foundation and is led by researchers at Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering. Among Sage’s expert collaborators are CSU scientists Gene Kelly and Jay Ham, who will help to integrate nodes of an existing NSF observatory – with sites at Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station research centers across the state – into the Sage array of environmental sensors.

The idea behind Sage is to move advanced machine learning algorithms into “edge computing,”which is a way to streamline data flowing from internet of things devices. Rather than the traditional method of deploying sensors and collecting the data later, edge computing means that data analysis takes place almost immediately, very near the site where the data was gathered.

By linking small, powerful computers directly to tools like high-resolution cameras, soil water sensors, air quality sensors, and light detector and ranging (LIDAR) systems, the new, distributed infrastructure will enable researchers to analyze and respond to data more quickly. From early detection of wildfire plumes to identifying ultrasonic bat calls, to seeing patterns of pedestrians in busy crosswalks, Sage’s artificial intelligence-enabled sensors will be a new tool for understanding the planet as a whole.

Integrating existing platforms

The new cyberinfrastructure project will be enhanced by partnerships with existing scientific instruments. CSU’s Gene Kelly, a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and deputy director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, will lead the integration of Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station sites and NSF’s National Ecology Observatory Network (NEON) into Sage. NEON is an array of 81 instruments at terrestrial and aquatic sites across the country that collect data on plants, animals, soil, water and the atmosphere.

Kelly, who previously served as lead scientist of the NEON network, will specifically work with Sage collaborators to pilot Sage instrumentation on mobile platforms that are currently part of NEON. For example, the existing NEON tower at the Central Plains Experimental Range, 30 miles from CSU, will eventually also host a mobile platform with instruments that can be tested side by side with the NEON tower.

Ham, a professor in soil and crop sciences, is a co-principal investigator with Kelly and will set up networks for soil water monitoring and atmospheric measurements at CSU’s Agricultural Research Development and Education Center and other agricultural experiment station centers.

“We’ll deploy NEON mobile platforms and other sensors at many of our research centers, effectively creating an agricultural observatory for the state,” Kelly said.

Leaders of the project think Sage’s distributed, intelligent sensor networks will prove essential for understanding the impacts of global urbanization and climate change on agricultural and natural ecosystems.

In addition to Northwestern University and CSU, the research team includes University of Chicago, George Mason University, University of California San Diego, Northern Illinois University, University of Utah, and the Lincoln Park Zoo.